Ask the Expert

Should You Talk to Your Kids About Newtown?

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson offers parents tools to help kids—and themselves—deal with the unthinkable

Photograph by Getty Images

I really don’t know what to say. I’m heartbroken and speechless.

Facts are still coming in, and I'm just beginning to process everything myself. What we’ve learned is that close to 30 people, including many children, were killed by a gunman this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

I really don’t know what to say.

None of us do.

But if we’re parents, we’ve got to decide how to address a horrific event like this with our own kids. We have to find the words.

The events just took place a few hours ago, so I reserve the right to change my opinion. But here are my thoughts on a first hearing, based on some questions I’ve already been asked.

Should I talk to my kids about what happened?

Usually, I’m in favor of giving children as much information as possible. But in this case, if you have young, even school-age, children, I’d be very careful about how much you tell them about what happened in Newtown. It can be overwhelmingly frightening to a child (or even an adult) to hear that a person has carried a gun into a kindergarten classroom and begun killing kids and their teachers. If your children haven’t heard about the shooting, I advise you not to open the door to that world. It’s terrifying.

RELATED: How to Empower My Child

What if my kids have already heard?

If your children hear about the shooting from friends or the news or some other source, then it becomes paramount that you talk with them about what they’ve heard. In this conversation, aim for three main goals:

Listen.

Begin by asking a few questions. Find out what your child knows and how he is feeling. A good question to ask is, “How did you feel when you first heard the news?” or, “What was your first thought?” Listening is crucial here, because it will allow you to assess where your child is, emotionally, at this moment, and also because it will give you information that should guide the rest of the conversation.

Let your child lead the conversation.

Don't give your children more information than they need or already have. They don’t need pictures drawn for them. Answer their questions, and show them the respect of taking their inquiries seriously. But address their concerns and curiosity without delivering extraneous information that will create more confusion and anxiety.

Help your child feel safe.

This is your highest priority right now. Information is important, but contextualize everything so that your child feels safe. Explain how rare the situation is, and that he has no reason to expect that it would happen at his school. Promise that you’re always watching over and protecting him. Let him know he can absolutely count on you and that you will always try to keep him safe.

Be willing to return to the subject, but only if your child needs to.

Later today, or tomorrow, or next week, your child may need to talk more about what happened. If so, talk more. But if your child has moved on and isn’t showing any signs of worrying any more about it, then let her move on. Don’t create anxiety by bringing it up again and again.

What do I do if I feel terrified, myself?

I know that these types of terrible (but extremely rare) occurrences make us want to pull our children closer, and protect them more. And yes, you should hold your child close tonight and be grateful. I know I will. But don't allow your fears and anxieties to rage so much that your child misses out on freedoms and opportunities that produce mastery and competence. And remember, too, that kids are very perceptive. Be careful not to communicate so much of your own fear that you make your own anxiety theirs.

I feel a deep, deep sadness for the people of Newtown. Tragedies occur, and far too often, we’re left without any answers. I wish I had more answers right now, both for myself and to offer you. All I know to say as we watch from afar, is that we should let this remind us of our responsibilities to our own children: to listen to them, to protect them, to cherish them and to communicate to them—as fully as possible—how much we love them.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: How Do You Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy?

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